One of the most challenging parts of learning a language such as Spanish is differentiating between synonyms. This is the case of the verbs Contar, Hablar, and Decir. These are all verbs relating to speech and talking, but have different uses. Understanding the difference between these important and commonly used Spanish verbs will help your conversation to be more fluent with Spanish native speakers.
So what’s the difference between ‘Contar’, ‘Hablar’ and ‘Decir’ in Spanish? Although they are verbs used for talking and speech, they are used in different situations. Hablar is to ‘speak‘ or to ‘talk‘. Decir is to say or to tell. Contar means to ‘tell’ too but is closer to the verb ‘recount’.
There is no doubt that understanding the direct translations of these words might be helpful. However, you ‘ll need to eventually learn when and how to use them correctly. Since contar, hablar and decir are related to talking it might be confusing choosing over another. In this post, we are going to discuss in-depth the differences between contar, hablar, and decir. By the end, you will be able to make the right choice.
Difference between ‘Contar’, ‘Hablar’ and ‘Decir’
As mentioned before, Contar, Hablar, and Decir are Spanish verbs whose meanings are related to talking or speaking. Talking and speaking are general actions. In English, if you want to be more specific you would use ‘to tell’ or ‘to say’. It’s the same in Spanish.
In Spanish, Hablar stands for ‘to speak’ or ‘to talk’. Given that ‘to speak’ and ‘to talk’ are the direct translation for Hablar, you don’t need to think too much about the context and the situation.
Decir is the direct translation for ‘to tell’ and ‘to say’. Just as in English, we use Decir when giving information to somebody else or when repeating something you or somebody else said.
Finally, Contar is also a direct translation for ‘to tell’. This is where most new Spanish speakers start to get confused. So which one should you use? Decir or Contar?
Even though both Contar and Decir are the direct translation for ‘to tell’, they’re not meant to be used interchangeably. In Spanish, Contar implies asking somebody to tell us more details about a situation or an event that occurred. Contar is close to ‘recount’ but this doesn’t mean that we are necessarily talking about a book or a story.
Let’s see how you would use one each of these Spanish verbs.
When to use ‘Contar’ in Spanish
It’s likely that you heard the Spanish verb Contar in different contexts or situations. Below, we are going to see examples of when you should use this verb.
Asking for Details
Unlike Decir, when Spanish speakers use Contar they are asking for details, for a story or an event.
Cuéntamelo todo Tell me everything
Ella me contó sobre su cita She told me about her date
Cuéntame cómo conociste a mi mamá Tell me how you met my mom
As you can infer from the examples above, contar can be used when story-teling or when you just want to get as many details as possible from a situation. Although the gossip that your friend told you or the story of how your parents met is not in a book, it doesn’t mean they are not stories.
Could you use Decir in these examples? You could but it wouldn’t be the best option. When you replace decir with contar, instead of asking for details you are ordering this person to give you information. ‘Decir’ would be used when a parent or an authoritative figure is upset or demanding that you tell them about an event.
And since Contar has this connotation of narrating, telling or recounting a story, kids use it all the time.
Mamá, ¿me cuentas un cuento? Mom, can you tell me a story?
Take Note: Remember! When asking for a story, we don’t use Decir. If kids use Decir in this context, instead of a story, they would get a scolding.
Tell us a joke!
We also use contar when you are talking about jokes. If you think about it, a good joke is like a story. It has details and just as in the example of children asking for a story: when telling a joke, people change their voice and add some dramatic movements.
|Cuéntanos un chiste||Tell us a joke|
|Él cuenta los mejores chistes||He tells the best jokes|
Remember, if you don’t want to sound rude and bossy don’t use Decir in this context!
When to use ‘Decir’ in Spanish
There’s no doubt that Decir and Contar are more likely to confuse you since both of them means ‘to tell’. We already saw the main difference between these two verbs above. Furthermore, we mentioned before that Decir is the direct translation for ‘to say’. Now it’s time to see when and how to use this verb.
Asking and giving specific information
We already established that when asking for details, we use Contar. But if you want specific information, you would use Decir.
¿Puedes decirme la hora? Can you tell me the time?
Te diré cómo llegar a la tienda I’ll tell you how to get to the store
As you can see in the previous examples, Decir isn’t asking about details related to a past event or story.
When Repeating or Relaying Information
Just as in English, in Spanish, we use Decir (to say) when repeating information. Since they don’t mean ‘to say’, in this situation it would be incorrect to use Contar or Hablar.
It’s very common that when having a conversation, somebody didn’t hear or for one reason or another, you need to repeat what you or somebody else said. In these cases you would use:
Decir (conjugated) + que + information
Dije que te ayudaría I said I would help you
Dijo que era una buena película She said it was a good movie
¿No dijiste que hoy llovería? Didn’t you say it would rain today?
Él dice que no le gusta la música He says he doesn’t like music
When to use ‘Hablar’ in Spanish
Hablar is only used when translating ‘to speak’ or ‘to talk’. As a result, you cannot exchange it with Decir. Let’s see some examples of this verb, so you know better when to use it.
Just as in English you use ‘speak’ when talking about another language, in Spanish you would use Hablar.
Hablar (conjugated) + language
|Ellos hablan francés||They speak French|
|¿Hablas inglés?||Do you speak English?|
|Yo hablo español y portugués||I speak Spanish and Portuguese|
Speaking to Other People
The verb ‘speak’ is also used when speaking to other people. And even though, in some contexts, you would use the verb ‘to talk’, in Spanish, we don’t have this type of nuances. As a result, we always use the verb ‘hablar’.
¿Puedo hablar con el director? Can I speak to the principal please?
¿Puedo hablar con el director? Can I talk to the principal please?
Eva no le habla a su mamá Evan doesn’t speak to her mom anymore
Vamos a hablar con el dueño acerca de la renta We are going to speak to the landlord about the rent
Vamos a hablar con el dueño acerca de la renta We are going to talk to the landlord about the rent
Hablar as Talking
Hablar is also the direct translation for ‘to talk’. You would use Hablar to express that you are talking to somebody else or to talking about something. In other words, Hablar is used when talking to or about a subject.
Ellos hablan de política They talk about politics
Hablo con mi amiga todos los días I talk to my friend every day
Ese artículo habla del clima That paper talks about the weather
As you noticed, when talking about something you need:
Hablar (conjugated) + de + subject
|Ellos hablan de política||They talk about politics|
|Hablamos de economía||We talk about economics|
Although they may look the same, you learned that Contar, Hablar, and Decir have different meanings and, therefore, we use them in different situations. In this post, we discussed the differences between Contar, Hablar, and Decir and got familiar about when and how to use each of these verbs. If you’re still unsure about their differences, keep the following in mind.
- Contar means to tell. When using this verb you are asking for details, regarding an event or a story. Therefore, it’s close in meaning to recount or narrate. You can use it when gossiping or asking for an anecdote.
- Decir also means ‘to tell’ or ‘to say’. But you would use it when asking for specific information or instructions. It also means ‘to say’ and we use it to relay information.
- Hablar is the verb for ‘to talk’ or ‘to speak’. Therefore, we use it to express that somebody speaks a language, to describe the way we talk or when talking about a topic.
- Although you could use Decir to ask for a story, in Spanish you would really be ordering it. You can use it if you are an authoritative figure, otherwise, it would be considered rude.
Does to count mean Contar in Spanish? Contar also means ‘to count’. When using this meaning of Contar, it is followed by numbers or objects. Yo cuento mis vestidos.